Since spring 2021, the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) has been identifying best practices in psychosocial support to better facilitate collaboration and cooperation between religious actors and mental health professionals who provide services to conflict-affected communities — including trauma-affected displaced persons. The initiative will focus on Latin America as a pilot region, aiming to offer practical recommendations to relevant stakeholders.

Migration and displacement, particularly involving armed conflict, are complex processes which expose persons to stressful events and often trauma. In countries experiencing social upheaval and high levels of violence and polarization, mental health can be a serious challenge to post-peace accord scenarios or peacebuilding. 

The Rev. Nelson Sandoval visits a family drying annatto seeds in El Tukuko, Venezuela

Research has shown that there is a higher prevalence of mental disorders and behavioral problems among displaced persons, which can make unemployment more prevalent and hinder integration into new communities and societies. USIP recognizes the pressing need to bridge the gap between religious actors, mental health professionals and other government and nongovernment actors tasked with the psychosocial support of displaced populations. 

Religious actors are often on the frontlines of responding to the needs — including mental health — of people who have been displaced by violent conflict. Religious and many non-religious people often look to religious actors and institutions to support their psychosocial needs.

Furthermore, religious institutions tend to have broader access to territories and populations, often where other service providers cannot operate, given their ability to work locally while benefitting from the credibility and trust engendered by their religious ties and affiliation. In a time when there are an extraordinary number of trauma-impacted migrants and displaced people worldwide — and when locally available mental health professionals are overburdened or cannot enter the areas where they are needed most — strengthening the capacity of religious actors in this field will enhance trauma support, while still respecting the unique roles and contributions of each actor. 

The Colombian and Venezuelan Context — A Pilot Program

More than 50 years of armed conflict, political exclusion and social inequity have left over 6 million people internally displaced within Colombia. Similarly, recent data suggests that 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants currently reside in Colombia. This creates conditions where the emotional, social and relational lives of victims of displacement and migration are negatively impacted. Common mental health problems among these migrants and displaced persons include fear; a feeling of losing control over life; uncertainty; and more serious and potentially permanent conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Colombian context offers valuable learning opportunities, given that the recurrence of forced displacement is the most common form of victimization, even after the historic 2016 peace agreement. The conflict disproportionately affected Afro-descendant, indigenous and other marginalized ethnic communities, causing trauma and the rupture of the social fabric. Moreover, the extensive work on psychosocial support by diverse actors, particularly religious institutions, offers lessons to better inform support for displaced trauma survivors in other contexts. For instance, the Catholic Church has been a pioneer in supporting victims and doing advocacy work for the recognition of victim’s rights. Meanwhile, protestant churches, through diverse NGOs and ecumenical networks, have contributed to diverse forms of psychosocial support and have jointly organized activities to acknowledge victims. 

With the increased migration of Venezuelans to Colombia, local faith-based organizations and religious actors are providing psychosocial services to the migrant population and coordinating efforts with government institutions to improve the response to the humanitarian crisis. Therefore, it is relevant to identify the lessons learned in this process to inform future efforts in other countries.

The Connection between Mental Health, Psychosocial Support and Religious Actors

This project seeks to facilitate more effective collaboration between religious actors and mental health professionals who offer support to conflict-affected communities — with a focus on displaced persons who have experienced traumatic stress.

Through this project, USIP will:

  1. Build better understanding by conducting and disseminating research to map and identify current efforts, resources, best practices and evidence-based interventions to inform policy and practice.
  2. Strategically disseminate research findings through various fora, including publications.
  3. Foster effective collaboration between religious and traditional actors and mental health professionals to encourage more effective psychosocial support for survivors of conflict-related trauma.
  4. Engage religious actors, mental health professionals, NGOs and public officials through virtual online learning and exchange platforms.

Latest Publications

Why the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Partnership Is So Significant

Why the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Partnership Is So Significant

Friday, September 17, 2021

By: Brian Harding; Carla Freeman; Mirna Galic; Henry Tugendhat; Rachel Vandenbrink

The United States and the United Kingdom have made the rare decision to share nuclear submarine propulsion technology with Australia in a move seen aimed at China. In a joint statement on September 15, the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia announced the formation of a trilateral partnership — AUKUS — that, among other things, seeks to “strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests.” USIP’s Brian Harding, Carla Freeman, Mirna Galic, Henry Tugendhat and Rachel Vandenbrink discuss the significance of the decision and what to expect next.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

What Can the Taliban Learn From Past Afghan Conquests and Collapses?

What Can the Taliban Learn From Past Afghan Conquests and Collapses?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

By: William Byrd, Ph.D.

The Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan caught many people by surprise, perhaps including the Taliban themselves. However, it is not the country’s first episode of an unexpectedly quick military victory and consequent rapid change in regime. Historical examples may provide relevant lessons for the victorious Taliban as they begin to govern the country, including pitfalls to be avoided in their own and the nation’s interest.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience

The Need to Build on Security Gains in Mozambique

The Need to Build on Security Gains in Mozambique

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

By: Thomas P. Sheehy

The Rwandan armed forces and police deployed to the Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique have made impressive gains combatting the Islamic State-affiliated al-Shabaab militants that have devastated the area. These 1,000 or so forces secured the key port city of Mocimboa da Praia in August, and the militants — who have committed grave atrocities, killed thousands and driven nearly a million people from their homes — have been forced to retreat from several areas of this natural resource-rich region. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Violent Extremism

Making Sense of North Korea’s Missile Test

Making Sense of North Korea’s Missile Test

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

By: Frank Aum

North Korea announced on September 13 that it had tested long-range cruise missiles over the weekend. It described the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance.” The test caused alarm in North Korea’s neighbors — South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies — as the revelation now puts both countries within striking distance. But despite the test, a spokesperson for the Biden administration said the United States remains prepared to engage with North Korea. USIP’s Frank Aum discusses the significance of the tests, the arms race on the Korean Peninsula, and what signals North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be sending to the United States with this latest test. 

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

View All Publications